Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Even though there’s been no need to fear it for years, kids in The Villages at Parkside still move pretty quickly past 2227 Indiana Avenue,. Mrs. Yearts still lives there, but DJ got shipped off to a military boarding school years ago, and he graduated a little before me. He stuck with that lifestyle and enlisted, or so my parents told me. DJ and I didn’t keep in touch.
DJ once ruled our neighborhood with an iron fist, at least in terms of the children. Ruled actually seems a little benevolent, a more proper term is terrorized. Terrorized with an iron fist. Built a little bigger and stronger than his peer group, he unfortunately coupled this with an almost sadistic mean streak. My father used to say that his mother treated him terribly, and DJ’s father either left or died, I never found out which. Either way he seemed determined to take it out on the world.
DJ and I actually shared something in common in that we two didn’t go to the local Catholic school just up the street from me. Nearly all the kids in the neighborhood did, and I still played on its church soccer team, so I knew most of the guys that way. But that left DJ as the real odd man out. I don’t want to provide any excuses, because I still hate the kid that he was, but now I can empathize a little better, just due to age and experience.
On the way back from one of those soccer practices a group of us left the park together and started scattering back to our respective homes. A fall sport, soccer practices often run until nearly dark, especially later in the year. We were still in middle school then, but our coach worked us as hard as any high school coach I would later play under and we didn’t go home until our water bottles lightened to empty and our legs sagged beneath us. Even though he pushed us hard, our coach remained as adamant about leaving the park before dusk, just as our parents did.
“Park closes at dusk, boys. It’s illegal for us to stay any later.” he would tell us, and even though it made no sense that a group of twelve year olds would get arrested for playing soccer in a public place designated for that purpose, we scurried home anyway and made sure not to come back, not that we wanted to.
On this particular evening we stayed right to the brink before the coach told us to pack it in, and five of us, exhausted and the last group to leave, trudged back, knocking our cleats against the curb occasionally to try and kick a little mud off. We generally accepted our neighborhood to consist of ten blocks that ran perpendicular to Bracey Avenue, which we walked down with a red sliver of a sun still at our backs. Bracey formed a kind of spine for the neighborhood with five vertebral blocks branching off, and up at the third vertebrae we could see a dark outline throwing things at trees and lampposts, a favored pastime of our old nemesis. We all nervously looked at each other. DJ was a couple years older than us, already in high school, and big on top of that. Because our soccer league grouped us by two years, the team consisted of mainly sixth and seventh graders with a couple of young eighth graders thrown in, which made us now the oldest cohort. A couple of years ago we might have waited for the kids his age to finish practice and come up behind us, but those days were gone, they all went to high school and practiced with their high school teams, no longer in our local park. DJ didn’t practice at all; we’d heard he was kicked off his school’s football team for starting fights, but no one knew any specifics or really worried about it. We did worry, though, about the large figure up ahead that we didn’t want to run into.
The other four looked to me. I, too, ranged a little above average for my age, though not big enough to stand chin to chin with DJ. Perhaps chin to nose. I scuffed my cleat against the ground. I didn’t really have any skin in this fight; DJ patrolled the space between the third and fourth streets just now and my house sat on the second. So did Ben’s, and while DJ currently occupied the left side of Bracey Avenue, Harry and Pat lived on the third street, but on the right side. Only Jake, out on the fifth street, showed open fear.
“He’s not gonna do anything.” I said. “He’s too busy throwing rocks.”
Ben, Harry, and Pat all looked relieved, but Jake surely did not. “Guys, I have to walk past him all by myself. Last time I did he ripped my soccer jersey. Plus he took one of my cleats and my dad had to go get it back.” The fear and pleading in Jake’s voice made us all uncomfortable.
“It’s not that bad.” I muttered and focused on my cleats.
“Guys…” Jake said, his eyes looking around at each of us in turn, but we all saw much more interesting things in other directions. No one moved off though, all of us knowing we needed to look out for our own.
Inspired by the classic fox-rabbit-carrot puzzle, I came up with a plan. “Guys, let’s all walk with Jake down to his house, and then the four of us can walk to Indiana, so Harry and Pat, you guys can go up your street, and then Ben and I will walk back to McClellan together. I looked around and got nods from everyone except Ben.
“I live further up McClellan than you. I’ll be the last one out on the street.” He sounded legitimately scared and I sighed, knowing I would need to bite the bullet on this.
“Fine.” I replied. “I can run faster than you, so I’ll walk up to your place with you and then run back home.”
“Ok.” Ben agreed. I swallowed, knowing that this might put me in a bad spot, but I was the biggest; maybe DJ would think twice about going for me, and I thought I could outrun him anyway.
The five of us stayed on the right side of Bracey Avenue and held our breath as we walked past DJ, but he paid us no mind, focusing his ire instead on a lamppost that showed quite a few dings already. None of us spoke the entire way to Jake’s house, but when he got there he gave us a relieved look and said “Thanks guys.” He sprinted up the steps and ran in his front door as we walked away, back down the street.
In retrospect, I know exactly what we should have done, gone up to the main road that ran past our neighborhood. It ran parallel to Bracey and could take us all safely home without ever setting foot anywhere near DJ. But that road, Hartford, was crowded and busy, and our parents instructed us to use Bracey. Neighborhood bullies scared them less than possible abductors on the main roads, and we remained blindly obedient.
“Wait.” said Harry. “Let’s cut through here.” Two yards without fences lay to our left, so we snuck through in the growing dark, over to the fourth street.
“Let’s find another yard to cut through. If the MacKenzies took Chester inside, we can go through their yard, and the house behind them doesn’t have a fence.” said Pat.
“Wait.” I said. The streets were silent except for the dull roar of cars coming from the main drag. Staying low, I crept down the street a little so I could see Bracey again. I came back and told them “DJ’s gone. I think he went home. Let’s just use Bracey.”
Pat looked doubtful, but the other two readily agreed. We got to Indiana without incident, and Pat and Harry turned off and headed up their street. “See you Thursday.” Ben called after them, and they waved their acknowledgement back.
“Maybe we can get Pat’s brother to come down to the park on Thursday.” I said hopefully to Ben.
“Pat said he doesn’t get home until after seven from football practice…” Ben replied. Pat’s brother, Chris, once ranked as our best defense against DJ. Now a junior in high school and a JV footballer he could still ward of DJ easily, but no longer had the time.
“Damn.” I said glumly. “I wish his mother would send him to military school. Everyone keeps saying she’s going too.”
Ben nodded his agreement, but didn’t say anything. That rumor circulated every couple of months, but we first heard it two years ago. DJ didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We arrived at McClellan and made a left, then stopped dead. Here came DJ, walking right towards us, maybe twenty feet away. I restarted my stride, and after a second, Ben did too, but too late. DJ smelled the fear and stopped and stared at us from three feet away on the sidewalk. We didn’t even bother to try and walk past him.
By now a pattern stood long since established, so DJ didn’t feel the need to taunt us or provoke us. “Gimme that ball.” He demanded of Ben.
Ben couldn’t help but stare at him as he handed his dingy soccer ball over to DJ. DJ took it and threw it over our heads so that it landed on Bracey. “Go get it.” he said to me.
“You don’t throw a soccer ball.” I said disdainfully. “You kick it.”
DJ faked throwing his shoulders at me like he was going to tackle me, but held back. I jumped back about three feet anyway. “Go get it.” he snarled, laughing now.
I turned and jogged towards the ball. It wasn’t terribly far away, but I could feel Ben’s eyes on my back, accusing me for abandoning him. I guess I stopped feeling them at some point because I heard Ben yell “Hey!” I kept going and grabbed the ball about ten seconds later and started running back, but too late. DJ knocked Ben to the ground the second I left and pulled off his cleats, apparently a tactic he was growing to favor. This time though, he had the cleats in hand, a clumsy knot tied between two of the laces. Ben got off the ground and ran into him full steam. It knocked DJ back a step, but he quickly recovered and shoved Ben back to the ground easily. Now Ben watched with tears in his eyes as DJ threw the cleats up in the air. They revolved around and around, nearly became tangled in a tree branch, and thudded back to earth right in front of DJ.
I got back right as DJ released the cleats and, ignoring my former admonition of him for throwing the soccer ball with his hands, heaved the ball with all my might right at him. I aimed for his torso, thinking it the easiest to hit, but I played soccer for a reason. My throw went high and hit him right in the face, then bounced upwards. Surprised at this show of defiance, he still managed to catch the ball before it hit the ground and made as if to sling it right back at me. I went up on my toes and prepared to dodge, but he pulled it down with a growl and laughed at us.
“Now I’ve got your ball too, you little dumbasses.” He threw it up towards the tree a couple times, but it failed to catch either. He recovered it each time it bounced back down, though Ben and I each made an attempt for it.
“Alright, well I’m keeping it, then.” he said, and started trotting past us, towards Bracey. For good measure, he grabbed Ben’s shoes.
“HEY!” I screamed at him, as angry and upset as I’d ever been. “That’s not yours!”
“It is now. I’m gonna throw it in the forest.”
That set me back on my heels. “You can’t. It’s after dark. You’re not allowed in the park after dark.” That simple rule defined a large part of my life.
“I go in the park after dark all the time.” bragged DJ.
“No you don’t.” I said. “No one does.”
“I do. Watch me.” DJ started back the way we came from earlier.
Ben stood behind me. “Did he say he was throwing those in the park?” The fright was apparent.
“I don’t know. C’mon. Let’s stay behind him and watch. Be ready to run.” I warned. I didn’t want to lose my cleats any more than Ben wanted to lose his.
We were only about a block from the park, but DJ went over a little further, up the street that bordered the park, away from me and Ben’s houses. I saw what he planned. The fields where we played soccer sat in a low spot, surrounded on three sides by hills, and the fourth side by a creek. Two of the hills had roads built on top of them that created the edge of the fields. But the high side was covered by thick trees and brush and abutted the road. DJ didn’t intend to go in the park. He would just stand in the road and throw the gear into the forest. When I saw this, I made a run at him, but I got there way too late. He threw the ball into the forest and laughed at me. The cleats followed, revolving around and around, before wrapping around a tree branch.
“Go get it.” he teased.
Ben and I looked at each other. We didn’t want to go in there, we weren’t supposed to, not by any means, but how could we let DJ walk away having disposed of Ben’s cleats and his ball? I trudged towards the forest determinedly. At the street there was a steep dropoff into the forest, but it was late fall and most of the brush was dead, so I thought I could see where I was going. A street lamp burned behind me, and with its help I thought I could just see the ball. DJ was big and had a good arm, but the forest was pretty thick. I turned around to find DJ looking at me expectantly and Ben right behind me.
“You don’t have to go in.” I said. “You don’t have cleats on.”
“No.” he replied. “It’s my ball.”
We went to the steep edge and started inching down it on our butts. We recognized it would be tough to get back up, but lots of dead shrubs and roots protruded around us, and in the worst case we could pick our way back down to the field and come up the same slope we used to leave soccer practice. Some of the shrubs were thorny, and we when we got to the bottom, Ben stepped on one with stocking feet. “Ow!” he exclaimed. I looked back. I could see DJs silhouette at the top of the slope behind us.
“C’mon” I said. “Let’s get this and go home.”
We started picking our way over to where DJ threw the ball when we both heard a twig snap to our left. We both froze.
“What was that?” asked Ben in a whisper. I suddenly realized how dark it was in here and how little that street lamp helped.
“Nothing.” I said, as my heart raced. “Just a dead branch falling.”
I took a step forward and snapped a twig myself, and Ben’s arm came shooting out to grab mine. I yelped at this and he shushed me. “You grabbed me.” I groused.
“Arthur, I think we should go back.” he whispered, clearly very fearful.
I felt inclined to agree. “Ok. We’ll get it tomorrow. Or get your dad to come down.”
We turned around to get back to the slope. We were only maybe fifteen feet in, but we both suddenly thought that was too far. The hill was steep and the street looked unreachable. Ben started running before I did, but he stepped on another thorn bush and came up lame. I took two steps past him before I turned around to see him limping along, maybe five feet ahead of two glowing red eyes and a pair of shiny white teeth illuminated by the street lamp.
I didn’t even yell. I just ran straight for the hill with all my strength, two hour soccer practice forgotten. Ben must have seen the fear in my eyes, must have known something was wrong. I heard his footsteps behind me until I reached the hill. My cleats dug into the same wet clay that had stuck to them so well earlier that day and I scampered up the hill, tree roots and thorns alike tearing into my suddenly bloody hands. I don’t know what happened to Ben. I don’t know if cleats might have saved him that day or if he never even made it to the hill, but I ran as fast as I could back to where we first encountered DJ before I realized what I’d done. Horrified, I ran back the other way, slowing as I approached the border street. I didn’t see DJ anywhere. I approached the edge of the park, slowly, listening for any sound. I heard one. A dull crunching sound came from below me, coupled with occasional growling. It was too much for me I turned tail and ran again, never even looking down the slope properly.
I arrived home a nervous wreck, shaking and crying, but I got my story out quickly, or at least the important part. The second my father heard we’d been in the park after dark he left me in the care of my mother and strode towards the door, pulling a sturdy walking stick out of the umbrella stand as he left. I knew that walking stick. My father bought it when he visited Great Britain, and when he came back he showed me the sharp metal tip and sheathed axe head, all designed to ward off or kill any wild animals a hiker might come across in the rural areas of Scotland, where my family was from.
The fallout from this episode was tremendous. The news services made an ungodly amount of noise about animal control. My mother didn’t let me leave the house for a month on account of their hounding. The coroner’s report came out about the first time that I went back to school, and though the coroner noted that whatever killed Ben necessarily must be the biggest feral dog ever seen, the bites and such were consistent with such an attack. Forest rangers called in from national parks combed the park for weeks, never finding so much as a track. Finally, they called the search off, claiming the thing must have moved on.
I quit the soccer team after that, and stopped seeing my neighborhood friends. They didn’t mind; I scared them all almost as much as the park now. I told my story to the police and my mother told me that a few days later DJ got shipped off to military school. A couple years later high school signaled a general return to normalcy for me, as my notoriety wore off. My neighborhood friends all went to the Catholic institutions that usually followed a career at the local Catholic school, while I continued in the public school system. I picked soccer back up in high school, and when we occasionally played their teams, my old friends didn’t acknowledge me. I returned the favor, not wanting to dredge up what happened, not wanting my new high school friends to think of me differently. I went to college, joined a frat, got a degree, and put the whole thing behind me. I moved out of my parents’ house as soon as I graduated and lived too far away to visit frequently.
But last year I drove home to the old neighborhood, the day before Thanksgiving, and as I got out of the car I saw a short, muscular figure come out from behind a large bush to greet me. DJ, it turned out, wasn’t that big, he’d been held back a couple times and I now towered over him, but that didn’t bother him. While I tried to forget that night, he spent the last decade plus trying to piece it together.
“What do you want?” I asked sharply. I didn’t know what kind of grudges DJ might harbor.
“McClellan.” He said to me. “Do you know where your street gets its name?”
I shrugged. “The civil war general, I would guess.”
He nodded gravely. “That’s right. He fought battles all along this area, trading blows with Lee. But unlike Lee, a large part of his army was made up of immigrants.”
“Irish.” I said. “Running from English laws and some earlier ones from the potato famine.” I doubted DJ could outflank me on history.
“Exactly, but not all of them. Scotsmen and Englishmen came here too, and some joined up with the army. Some of them died here.”
I shook my head. “I’ll give you that.”
He took a deep breath. “What did you see the night Ben died?”
I looked at him hard-eyed. “A bully who tormented children until he got one killed.” My voice came out cold and flinty.
DJ took a step back. He must have known that was coming, but the pain on his face still showed. “I know that. I understand that now. But I haven’t come to make amends, not yet. There’s still something else I need to do.”
“What?” I asked, my voice still frosty.
“Have you ever heard of a Barghest?” I flinched, and he knew he could continue. “Some legends say that a Barghest comes about when a Scots or Englishman is killed unjustly, or his remains go unburied, and the Barghest roams the forests and hills near his body, seeking vengeance.”
Over the past years I mostly released my memories of that night, but the demonic red eyes and glinting ivory mouth still haunted my dreams from time to time. A morbid curiosity and unlimited access to the internet told me what I didn’t want to know.
“That’s ridiculous.” I snapped. “Don’t try to blame this on some dead soldier from a bygone era. You killed Ben, by way of some animal. You just feel guilty”
“I didn’t kill Ben.” DJ intoned slowly. “I made a mistake, but I didn’t kill him. But I am going to find whatever did.”
“The rangers searched that place for weeks. They never found a thing.”
DJ shook his head. “They never looked at night. And they never went when it was hungry.”
“I looked up the records. Animal attacks and missing persons are not uncommon near that park. Don’t you remember how we were warned to stay out of it after dark? Even me, by my neighbors. Everyone knows, but no one knows why or does anything to find out. In the past century and a half since the Civil war, records indicate 16 people killed by feral animals or missing in that park. No other park in a similar setting can even match half of that. Maybe a couple of those missing people aren’t victims of the Barghest. That’s 14. That’s one every decade, except this one.” DJ looked me dead in the eye. “The Barghest is hungry. It’s out to kill. But this time, it’s getting more than it bargained for.” DJ handed me a package. “Open this if I don’t come back.”
I grimaced. “DJ….”
He turned, but I found I had nothing to say. “Good luck.” I finished.
He gave a curt nod. “Thanks.”
When daylight broke three days later and stories of an AWOL infantry man found savaged near his childhood home started appearing on the news, I went for a walk. I’d opened DJ’s package and found his years of meticulous notes and research. I could see why he thought he’d stood a chance. I stood at the same spot where he’d decreed Ben’s fate, and yes, his own and stared blankly into the woods; blankly at a pair of child’s soccer cleats, swinging in the wind on a tree branch. A scrap of DJ’s research came back to me “Barghest are meticulous hunters, never forgetting a scent, never forgetting a potential prey.”
I stared blankly at my future.
I stared blankly at a pair of white cleats stained red with blood.
Credit To – Dan M Winters